Dr Jonathan Buckmaster

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Personal profile

I originally graduated with Upper Second Class Honours in English Language and Literature from St Edmund Hall, Oxford University back in 1997, and more recently received my MA in Literature (with Distinction) from the Open University in 2007.

My PhD thesis, which was supervised by Dr Anne Varty, focused on the figure of the pantomime clown in the work of Charles Dickens. While a number of scholars have described Dickens’s professional and imaginative relationship to the theatre and popular entertainment, few of these studies have attended to Dickens’s ideas on pantomime. Moreover, the importance of the pantomime clown to the formation of Dickens’s comic characters is also an under-studied field.

The first half of my thesis focused on two works that determine Dickens’s attitude to the form and ideas of pantomime at a very early stage in his career. The Memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi (1838), the biography of a Regency actor who popularised the role of the pantomime clown, is a largely forgotten text, creatively inferior to much of Dickens’s work, but I argue that it can be read as a working through of the ideas he had raised in his earlier essay ‘The Pantomime of Life’ (published in March 1837) around the theme of life as a theatrical performance. Moreover, through a close comparison of The Memoirs with the two novels of the same period, The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist, it is possible to identify a clear line of thematic and stylistic continuity, which again refutes the idea of The Memoirs being an anomaly in Dickens’s career.

In the second half of my thesis I demonstrate how these ideas persist and develop in Dickens’s subsequent fiction. Diverging from a traditional approach that focuses on the clown’s narrative function, I predominantly adopt a character-based strategy by examining a number of Dickens’s comic figures in relation to a series of fixed, observable tropes from Grimaldi’s repertoire which were as integral to the role as any narrative purpose they may serve. These tropes would form part of what Deborah Vlocke calls the ‘imaginary text’ of Victorian readers and theatre-goers, which carries its meaning beyond the playhouse to the novels people read.

I also consider the function of the clown in Dickens’s work, but I go beyond critical views that limit his supra-narrative value to an instrument of satire against an emerging bourgeoisie or a manifestation of the more grotesque side of reality. Instead, I show how Dickens used his Grimaldian clowns in a number of ways - to exploit the dark and violent humour of the Regency period, utilise its anti-establishment possibilities and examine how personalities can be multi-layered.Ultimately, this thesis reveals the wide-ranging significance of Dickens’s pre-Victorian roots, and demonstrates a Regency-inflected side to his characterisation, as well as building a case for further consideration of one of Dickens’s lesser-known texts.

My other research interests include include interpretations of Dickens's work in TV, films and radio, as well as the affinities between his work and that of Salman Rushdie. 

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